The recent success of Canada's men's and women's national teams – the men beat Panama in World Cup qualifying this past Friday, while the women's Olympic team won a bronze medal in London – will lead casual observers of the game to believe that all is well in Canadian soccer.
However, those who follow the game closely will tell you that appearances can be deceiving.
The men's and women's national teams are simply the tip of the iceberg that is Canadian soccer. Casual observers use the relative success (or failure) of our men's and women's teams to pass judgment on the state of the game in Canada as a whole. This judgment can often times be wide of the mark.
To those people, success – like the wonderful bronze medal achieved by the women's team at the Olympics – means that all is good in Canadian soccer. Failure, however – like the men's attempts to reach the World Cup over the last 26 years – means that we should all give up the game and stick to hockey.
What those casual observers fail to recognize is what lies hidden from view, below the waterline of the iceberg, so to speak - the state of the game at the grassroots level.
This is where the vast majority of Canada's soccer participants get their start kicking a ball. That a very small percentage of those players reach the international level is a credit to their individual hard work and dedication; they do so in spite of the Canadian system of player development, rather than because of it.
The root of the problem in Canada revolves around the concept of promotion and relegation. In many provinces, including Ontario, youth soccer rules promote teams that win to a higher competition level, and relegate teams that lose to a lower competition level.
This system works just fine – when it is used for adults. But it is ruining the development of young soccer players across the country.
This system forces youth coaches to ‘win at all costs', because only the team that wins is rewarded. What youth coaches should be doing is teaching their players to master the fundamentals of the game.
But under this system, many coaches abandon the very principles of teaching that they are there to administer, instead choosing to focus solely on the desired outcome – winning the game. They choose to teach tactics over technique, employing strategies that will achieve short-term success over the benefits of long-term development.
In doing so, these coaches become recruiters of players with advanced ability, rather than teachers of the game. They seek out and recruit ‘star' players from other teams, promising to build a team to ‘win it all'. They hoard players with ‘talent' - which is often simply disguised as physical maturity that provides a competitive advantage, such as speed or strength – in order to win games.
Their results, they claim, prove that they ‘develop' winners. In fact, their results prove nothing more than they are adept at recruiting, often at the expense of proper development. They ‘churn' players year after year, as they are incapable of developing players on their own. They are continually on the hunt for better players to replace the ones they are supposed to be teaching. They are the ultimate purveyors of fool's gold.
Critics argue that a system of promotion and relegation teaches young players how to compete at an early age, teaching them an essential skill that is required to reach the highest level of the game. They also suggest that when players get rewarded for winning (by gaining promotion) it gives them a sense of achievement, which in turn provides them with motivation to work even harder.
Those critics would be right – but only to a certain extent.
Young players do need to compete in order to improve, and the concept of winning and losing does need to be taught and can be a motivating factor that improves performance. However, these concepts need to be taught after a young player has acquired the fundamental skills of the game, not before.
Few - if any - children younger than 13 or 14 have mastered the skills of passing, receiving, shooting and dribbling a ball with both feet. Young players need the right environment in which to learn those skills, something that is not provided for them in a system where their coaches - or their parents – heap pressure on them to win.
It will take a generation of change for us to develop a genuine link between the results of our men's and women's national teams and the development of players at the grassroots level. If sweeping changes are made today – and they are starting to be made across the country – we will only see the benefits of those changes in 15-20 years.
For many, that is too long to wait. But change needs to happen at the grassroots level now, or Canada's international fortunes will be forever reliant on individuals fighting their way through a broken development system, rather than on the system producing a steady stream of talented players who possess the skills needed to make Canada consistently competitive on the international stage.